the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 8 chapter cws: alcohol consumption, references to violence and death, some mild gore/gross medical stuff in dialogue. this is probably one of my favorite chapters, and definitely one that got out of hand lol. enjoy!

As she studies herself in the mirror, smoothing down the folds of her kimono for the nth time, Kouyou tries to tell herself that this is just like preparing for any other meeting.

Detached from the situation, this isn’t too difficult a pill to swallow. On the surface, her appearance is close enough to that of her everyday look, whether at work or home, between the silk she’s draped in and the grace with which she carries herself. Looking closer, though, it’s not as easy as it seems, let alone with her agreement always at the back of her mind just as her rejection had been.

The kimono she’d chosen for tonight is a bit more subdued than her typical fare, but that’s not saying a great deal—the motifs of cranes and cherry blossoms sweeping across the dark silk are as elegant as ever, and the silver butterfly ornament she’d found to tuck into her obijime had been an unexpected but nice touch. It glitters now as she adjusts it, fine-tuning the centering. When the minute tweaks border on stalling, Kouyou lets her hands fall away.

She had considered, for the briefest of moments, opting for a gown rather than the traditional attire she prefers, if only to make herself less recognizable. Between her stature and hair, though, Kouyou isn’t quite someone who blends in even dressed in Western-style clothing, so she had dismissed this notion as quickly as it had crossed her mind to begin with.

Besides, she’d reasoned partway through wrapping one datejime around her waist, Yosano already knows, to some degree, what to expect from her. Kouyou shan’t shed all her armor—in its own way, her silk is armor—but there is little use in pulling up another mask, nor in setting unreproducible standards.

She grimaces before she can stray down the train of thought of the general event being reproducible. It had been part of the arrangement, but Kouyou isn’t sure she’s willing yet to entertain the thought of a single outing turning into a long-term affair.

For the most part, Kouyou has done her best not to think in much detail about the date at all. It still seems somewhat surreal, for one, and for another, she’s not certain how much logical thought it would take to talk herself out of things again, and she had made a deal. The Golden Demon is known for a great many things, but backing out unless under drastic circumstances is not one of them. Viewing a date as something of a challenge is perhaps not the best viewpoint, but given her lingering inhibitions—much as she’d like to pretend otherwise, a few convincing words won’t wash away decades’ worth of repression and guardedness—it is the most Kouyou can cling to at the moment.

By way of distraction, Kouyou leans closer to the mirror, bracing her weight on the counter. Her eyes are sharp, outlined with bold streaks of the red eyeliner she most often opts for. Kouyou is somewhat grateful it had turned out as well as it had; she’d almost had to stop breathing altogether to steady her hand when she’d reapplied it. She’d scowled at her reflection for it then, and as she mulls it over now, she does again.

She wouldn’t describe herself now as nervous—anxiety is something well below her by now—but Kouyou can’t deny the awkwardness of her every other motion. At a glance, she would be seeming to hold her chin and shoulders aloft as she does all the time, but she can again spot the tiniest of splinters. They’re things she lacks the time and scheduled therapy sessions to handle at the moment, so there’s really nothing she can do about them, but she finds herself frowning regardless, focusing instead on what she can fix.

Like adjusting her sleeves, nudging them back as much as she can manage. Her hands are stable now, to her relief, but some sense of tension still undercuts every twitch of her fingers.

Rather than sighing and resigning herself to a fate of further rumination, Kouyou reaches up to smooth down her hair. Her bangs are parted as they always are, fringe falling over one eye with the strands sifted slightly apart, but the rest is left loose around her shoulders. Her eyes narrow as she reconsiders that style. She hadn’t thought to pin it up into a traditional bun earlier, and she doubts she has the time now, but perhaps she could do something more with it than this.

With careful precision, Kouyou sweeps her hair onto her back and gathers a portion in one hand. The other hand fumbles for a dark ribbon adorned with a floral charm. Something that she bought to match with Kyouka, perhaps, or just as possibly something someone else bought her with that intent. Like the rest of Kouyou’s outfit, it is simple—as simple as she ever gets, at any rate—yet elegant, and so with mechanical but steady movements she sweeps her hair into a clean bun and ties it off with the ribbon. As efficiently as she had her kimono, she smooths the bun out with a hand. One thick strand is left loose against her cheek, falling in a curl toward her shoulder.

She hasn’t the time to accessorize, she realizes with an askance look at the clock, but this, she supposes, is acceptable. Kouyou looks herself over one last time, takes a deep breath, and steps out of the room.

On her way through her room, she grabs the clutch she’d set out but doesn’t bother with the haori flung across her bed. It is an early July evening, and today had already been warm and sunny, so she doubts she’ll need it; the layers of her kimono will likely be more than enough. Kouyou adjusts her collar as she starts into the hall and down the stairs.

The television is on in the living room, a far too common sound for how infrequently Kouyou herself even turns it on, and when she makes her way out there, it’s to find it set to a boxing match, but neither Kyouka nor Chuuya seems to be paying it much attention. Kyouka has a sketchbook pulled up to her chest; on the other end of the couch, Chuuya is scrolling through his phone. The bored glaze to his eyes indicates he’s looking at emails.

Kouyou lingers there, committing the scene to memory, before clearing her throat. They both lift their heads, wearing similar expressions as they peer up at Kouyou. Chuuya raises an eyebrow at the hair, and Kyouka looks right at the butterfly obidome, head quirking as though she recognizes the symbolism—which she should—but confused as to how to place it.

“It is about time for me to depart,” says Kouyou. If she leaves within the next three minutes, she’ll be at the restaurant almost twenty minutes earlier than they’d agreed on. “I shall likely be back in an hour or so at the most. Do either of you two need anything before I leave?”

She’s almost hoping for an affirmative answer, but Kyouka shakes her head, and Chuuya is quick to lean back and echo the sentiment: “We’ll be fine, ane-san. Just enjoy your date.”

A sense of incredulity still undercuts the words, and Kouyou can’t help but agree, closing her eyes for a split second.

Kyouka, meanwhile, is now nodding. “If it goes badly,” she says in a very serious voice, “I can text you pretending to have a fever so you’ll have to leave.”

Chuuya has to turn to the side to stifle laughter. Kyouka doesn’t so much as blink, dark eyes remaining on Kouyou.

“Where have you—all right,” says Kouyou, suppressing a sigh, because she can’t really argue when faced with that fierce glow of determination in Kyouka’s eyes. “If something happens and I find myself in need of a swift escape, then I will text you to inform you and you may call me, all right? You needn’t actually say anything,” she adds when Kyouka’s expression twitches. “It shall only be for show, and I’ll walk away so it will not need to be audible. But don’t simply text me saying you have a fever with no extra context, please.”

Thoughtfully, Kyouka bows her head. “Got it,” she says, exuding the same drive and obedience as some of Kouyou’s subordinates when told to kill a man. Kouyou has already decided that Kyouka won’t be part of her lifestyle by default, but sometimes, she can’t help but think about how well Kyouka would do in some regards.

Though smiling, Kouyou shakes her head. She steps over to briefly ruffle Kyouka’s hair, earning a scrunched nose, and when she looks over at Chuuya as if threatening to do the same, she gets an expression unimpressed enough to make her chuckle.

“Be good,” she tells them both, gaze lingering on Chuuya rather than Kyouka. He scoffs. “If I want you to call me, then I shall text. Otherwise, if you do genuinely need anything—besides offering me an excuse to leave—do not hesitate to call or text. Either of you.”

She starts to speak again, just to reinforce the notion, but Chuuya is already interrupting, dry: “I think we get the gist, ane-san. What time did you need to be there again?”

Without looking at the clock, Kouyou knows that her estimated time of arrival has lowered to about seventeen minutes before the actual agreed-upon time. She grimaces, dips her head, and doesn’t answer.

“Enjoy the rest of your evenings, then,” she says, starting toward the entryway. Beneath the low sound of the television, she can hear Kasa’s car idling just outside.

“Have fun,” Kyouka calls after her.

Kouyou pauses, glad that neither of them can see her face now, for even she doesn’t know what expression crosses her face. She reaches for her boots, calls back, “We shall see,” and steps into the warm night.

*

At thirteen seconds past six-forty-two, Kouyou arrives, getting out of the car faster than Kasa can offer any semblance of advice and making her way into the restaurant. Old-fashioned city pop is audible from just outside, and Kouyou has to glance over her shoulder to ensure Kasa hadn’t driven after her; when she’s verified that the music is, indeed, from the restaurant, she steadies her breath and steps inside.

The entrance is empty save for her and the hostess, who is finishing up a phone call just as Kouyou walks in. She looks up, taking in Kouyou’s appearance with surprise for a moment, and hurries her way off the phone.

Kouyou introduces herself with a smile. The hostess keeps her eyes on her clipboard as she scans for the name—a pseudonym, of course, but one she’d provided to Yosano before making the reservation.

Once she finds Kouyou’s reservation, the hostess gives an awkward nod that ends up more of a bow. “Right this way, please, ma’am. Your guest has already arrived.”

Behind the hostess’s back, Kouyou can’t help but arch her eyebrows. Either Yosano had been snatched and replaced by someone who has already slipped poison into Kouyou’s drink, or she happens to be just as efficient with her time as Kouyou is. In the latter case—which is, if not more probable, more desirable at least—Kouyou would be impressed.

And impressed she finds herself, when she’s ushered into a private dining room in which Yosano is already seated. The menu open in front of her shields her face from view, but not her hair, and when she hears the hostess speak she lifts her head.

In contrast to the hostess’s immediate stiffness upon seeing Kouyou, Yosano outright smiles. A hint of teeth is bared, and her dark eyes shine with it, glinting in the evening light trickling in through the window.

Kouyou seats herself at the opposite end of the table, positioned farther from the door and at an angle where she can see almost the entire room. She pulls in her chair behind her as much as she’s able to and adjusts her posture. Sitting like this is more reminiscent of being at work, but she supposes she can manage for a couple of hours.

Her attention soon shifts, however, to the opposite side of the table. “Hey,” Yosano is saying as the hostess steps out. She lowers her menu, grin somehow only curving wider in the quiet privacy of the room. “It’s nice to see you. I have to admit, I wasn’t honestly sure if you would actually show.”

Kouyou hadn’t entirely been either, but she says nothing along those lines. Instead, she says in a dry voice, “Is that why you arrived a great amount of time earlier than necessary?”

“Actually, I mostly just figured you’d appreciate my punctuality. You showed up early, too, so was I right?” Yosano doesn’t seem to expect a response for that, just moving on with a slight laugh. “I’ve only been here for a couple of minutes, actually. I just ordered water for you—” she gestures toward, indeed, a small glass sitting beside Kouyou’s closed menu “—since I wasn’t sure if you’d want another drink.”

“Thank you,” allows Kouyou, reaching for the glass with one hand and opening her menu with the other. “I was considering getting wine, depending upon the options.”

“Oh, really? If you find something that goes well with eel, let me know.” At the glance she earns, Yosano taps the menu page she’s looking at. “I didn’t drive here, so I might as well, right?”

Almost automatically, Kouyou prolongs her stare. “Are you implying you were wearing that on the subway?”

That refers to the long, high-collared crimson dress Yosano is clad in, its golden detailing shifting and glimmering with every minute movement she makes. The angle isn’t conducive to seeing it now, but Kouyou thinks she had also noticed a slit up one side of the skirt when she’d walked in, too. Yosano had seemed to be wearing flats, at the very least.

Yosano laughs, twisting her head in a way that makes the diamond earrings she’s accessorized with sparkle. “I walked part of the way, and I was wearing this over it,” she says, reaching over her shoulder to tug at the jacket—too heavy for the current weather—slung over the back of her chair. “Also, I’m taking that as a compliment.”

“It was intended as one. You look quite lovely.” Kouyou’s words come as almost a reflex; she meets her equally instinctive swell of embarrassment with a frown. In place of finger-length sleeves, she raises her menu to cover the lower half of her face. “That said, I cannot help but notice your lack of eyeglasses tonight.”

“I’m farsighted, so I just need them for reading. And they don’t really go with this—” she gestures to her dress “—so I’m wearing contacts tonight.” Yosano glances at the menu one last time before closing it and setting it aside. As she does, she reaches toward the side of her face, making a motion as if to push up a pair of glasses that aren’t there—then she stops. “Ah,” she says, eyeing her hand out of the corners of her eyes. “Clearly I’m too used to wearing them, though.”

Kouyou presses her lips together over a smile. She busies herself with looking over the entrees, only keeping watch on Yosano out of the very top edge of her vision.

Shaking her head, Yosano drops her hand in dismay. “Thank you, though,” she says with a grin, calling back to what Kouyou had hoped to distract her form, however momentarily. “Coming from you, compliments like that weigh a lot. You look ‘quite lovely’ yourself, Ozaki. The obidome is a nice touch.”

Kouyou has to keep herself from looking down as if to confirm what charm rests atop her obi, as if she could ever forget. “Thank you. I thought so as well.” She decides on her order and flips to another section of the menu, skimming over the choices with a manicured nail serving as a guide. Before Yosano can speak again, Kouyou manages to ask, “Is Sancerre acceptable?”

Yosano whistles. “If it works for you too, then absolutely.”

It does, so Kouyou only nods and closes her menu. The moment she sets it down, as if summoned by the sound, the waitress joins them, greeting Kouyou with a smile and asking if they’ve decided yet. Yosano jumps on the chance to order grilled eel, which allows Kouyou the chance to sip from her water, glancing to the side while Yosano hashes out the exact details of the meal. Once she’s finished, Kouyou passes over her closed menu and orders tempura and a bottle of wine for them both.

When the waitress darts off, they’re left in peaceful silence, save for the quiet city pop still playing over the speakers. The tune is a vaguely familiar one, and the smooth, jazzy rhythm is enjoyable enough. Kouyou’s gaze drifts to the window to watch the steady darkening of the sky. A couple of minutes trickle away until the silence becomes more grating than calming.

“Okay,” says Yosano, loudly enough that Kouyou’s attention snaps to her at once, “we probably shouldn’t rely on meaningful looks to communicate for the rest of dinner. How have you been the past few days?”

With a momentary flinch at the forced small talk, Kouyou sits up a touch straighter, unaware she’d slackened her posture to begin with. “Fine,” she allows; it feels like a lie, although it really isn’t. “A bit preoccupied. And you, sensei?”

“You can just call me Yosano, you know.” The look Kouyou levels makes it clear that that will not happen tonight, or in the near future at all, and Yosano chuckles with vague understanding. “Fine, fine. School has been uneventful since finals wrapped up. Izumi did well, I assume?”

At the mention of Kyouka, some of the stiffness seeps from Kouyou’s shoulders. “I don’t believe her grades have come back yet, but undoubtedly so.”

“Probably, yeah. I ask because Kunikida was bragging about her work in the break room again,” says Yosano with a grin. “His adopted daughter has become friends with her, apparently, so he’s even more impressed by her.”

“His… hm. That would be Aya-chan, I assume?” Kouyou searches her brain for any time that Chuuya or Dazai might have mentioned this, but Dazai, who’s more measurably friends with Kunikida anyway, only brings him up with her to talk about how many gray hairs he has now, or something else of very little importance.

“Yeah. He has another kid in high school, I think, or maybe he’s in college now?” Yosano shrugs. “Whatever the case, almost everyone who works at that school has a penchant for taking in orphans, apparently. Oh, speaking of which—” She straightens, the prompt not an especially assuaging one but one that catches Kouyou’s attention nevertheless. “There was something I was wondering about. It’s a bit personal, though.”

That could mean more or less anything, and Kouyou’s fingers twitch at the ambiguity. “Ask, then,” she says, gesturing for Yosano to go on. “If I don’t wish to answer, then I shall not, and we can move on to something else.”

“Fair enough.” Yosano shifts, clears her throat, and asks, “Since the two of you aren’t biologically related, how did Izumi come into your care?”

Personal in that way, then. “Her parents and I were acquainted beforehand,” Kouyou says after a moment’s hesitation, intending to leave out as much information as she reveals, if not more so. “They passed on several years back, and their will dictated that I was to have custody of Kyouka. She has been my daughter in all but blood ever since.”

“So that wasn’t a planned thing, you adopting her?” asks Yosano, brows quirked.

Kouyou almost laughs; she manages to hold herself back enough to say, “Not even remotely.”

“Huh. But you ended up just—” Yosano leans forward, cupping her chin with a hand “—adjusting your life to take care of a child anyway?”

“It was hardly a simple, easy process for either of us,” says Kouyou, thinking of the first night and the months that had followed it, “but… yes, effectively. It was not the first time I had done so, either.”

“I take it that’s the brother you mentioned?”

Kouyou tries to recall when she had mentioned him at all—at the sushi bar, more likely than not, but it must have only been in passing. Mildly impressed, she nods. “He is only five years younger than me, and I took him in when I was twenty-one, so while I suppose I could refer to him as a son, that felt—and still feels—improper at best.”

“Huh,” says Yosano again. Her hand falls away from her chin, settling on the edge of the table instead. “You’ve raised two kids, then?”

“…and a half.”

“Pardon?”

“I did not raise him, per se,” says Kouyou, grimacing at the very thought, “but to some extent, I looked after my brother’s partner when he was that age as well. There was a short period of time when he lived with us, even.” She thinks for a moment, then adds, “Indirectly, too, I suppose there is a non-insignificant quantity of my subordinates who would count.”

Yosano is watching her still, she realizes when she glances over, mouth in a neutral line but eyes sharp and thoughtful. The expression takes Kouyou aback, enough so to ask, “What is it you’re thinking?”

Yosano blinks, huffs, and tilts her head back. “I’m not sure you’ll appreciate how I phrase this,” she says, not an encouraging lead-in by any means, “but… I imagine a lot of people see how you present herself and assume that coldness runs all the way down.” Eyes narrowing, Kouyou half-nods. “So it’s nice to see that you do have some level of a soft spot.”

Silence hangs in the room for a second before Kouyou turns her head to the side. “You were correct,” she says. “I’m not certain I like it being described that way.”

“I don’t mean it in a bad way, for what it’s worth.” Yosano sips from her water. “It’s endearing, really.”

“It is—” A vulnerability, Kouyou intends to say, but she bites her tongue soon enough to stop herself. She brushes off the heat crawling up her throat with a quick swig of water. “As I have expressed to you, it has been very difficult to teach myself to move beyond the notion that affection and love are weaknesses, and that light can only bring harm. Accepting such abstract concepts is difficult, let alone embracing them. Perhaps having something to fight for is a strength, but I take issue with the implication that such attachments would make me soft.”

Though Kouyou’s hackles are raised, Yosano meets her gaze with an expression neither placating nor intimidated. “Right,” she says, nodding, “and I didn’t mean to suggest as much. I was just thinking of how impressive it is to wear both brutality and tenderness with such ease.”

“…I see.” That sense of duality—a surface that would lend to one interpretation, and actions that would lend to another—is one of the things that had sparked Kouyou’s interest in Yosano, and it’s something she’s recognized to an extent in herself, so she supposes she can’t complain. She keeps her gaze averted, letting the silence stretch out for a couple of seconds longer before sighing. “Well, I may as well return the favor. You have no children for me to ask after—”

“That you know of,” says Yosano, grinning sharply, which Kouyou disregards as a joke.

“—so I shall ask about your work instead,” she concludes, as though she hadn’t been interrupted. “How did you come to be the school physician?”

Yosano’s smile falls back into a more neutral expression, and she leans back in her seat. “I’ve worked in medicine for a long time,” she says, folding her hands beneath her chin, “and I’ve known Fukuzawa-sensei for a while too. A few years ago, the nurse at his school happened to retire at just the same time I had to leave my job as a trauma surgeon at a nearby hospital.” For a split second, she grimaces, fingers tightening where they’re pressed together. The tension recedes after a few heartbeats. “Ranpo mentioned the opening, I applied, and here we are.” She spreads her palms, managing a smile now.

Kouyou’s eyebrows, meanwhile, have crept up. “You were a trauma surgeon? Far be it from me to criticize your career choices, but your current position seems well below you.”

“Probably, but I like it. Aside from cases like Kyouka’s, it’s usually less depressing than surgery tended to be.” Yosano’s eyes fall almost at once on where Kouyou’s jaw tenses, and her smile ticks appeasingly up. “Besides, there’s a lot of things on my resume that look shitty on paper. Fukuzawa-sensei knows enough that he’s fine hiring me, but most wouldn’t.”

Something stirs at the back of Kouyou’s mind. “Would this be in relation to the… unscrupulous matters you mentioned to me?”

“To some extent.” Yosano doesn’t seem keen to elaborate, but Kouyou supposes she can’t fault her. “I’d love to hear more about your work, honestly, but I doubt this is the place.”

“Likely not,” agrees Kouyou, eyeing all the places her men would think to store listening devices, “and much of it is too sensitive to share regardless.”

Yosano sighs, leaning her cheek into her palm. “What a shame.”

“That is not the sentiment most would express.”

“Fortunately for you, Ozaki, I’m not most people. And I strongly doubt you are.” Kouyou doesn’t bother to answer this, only allowing for a thin smile as she cuts her gaze toward the window again, but that much pulls a laugh from Yosano all the same. “Is your daughter a safe enough topic?”

The same way she had earlier, Kouyou perks up somewhat. “Certainly,” she says. “Certain topics in relation to Kyouka may not be, but overall, I am absolutely not opposed to speaking about her.”

“Great—I wanted to ask about her interest in kendo, then.”

“Ah, that.” It has come up a grand total of two times since Kyouka mentioned it that first day, perhaps assuming Kouyou to have committed it to memory (which she more or less has, but she can’t say the same for her future self). “Kyouka’s parents were skilled in martial arts, so she has been entrenched in such things her entire life. There are several model swords displayed throughout my house as well.”

“Oh, really?” Yosano looks all but delighted at that; Kouyou recalls the scalpels and cleavers that had come up when she’d run into her and Kyouka in the mall. “I assume it goes without saying that they’re all secured and out of reach and everything.”

“Of course,” says Kouyou, affronted at the notion that they wouldn’t be. “I have trained in swordsmanship since I was a girl, and though I have never taken any especial efforts to teach Kyouka such skills, I suppose she has picked up some things regardless, both from myself and her birth mother. Suzu’s bladework may have outshone even mine.”

“I see.” Eyes glittering still, Yosano leans back. When she moves her hand to frame her face again, Kouyou fully notes for the first time that her hands are, unlike every other time they’ve met, bare, revealing manicured but calloused fingers. “You’re the type of person to always have at least one blade on her, I’d imagine.”

“You would imagine right,” says Kouyou, faintly impressed again. Though she can feel Yosano glancing at her with a touch more care, discretion is one of Kouyou’s strong suits. “Are you that type of person as well, sensei?”

Yosano grins, secretive, and reaches for her glass of water. “That’s something I’m not answering, I’m afraid. Anything else you were wondering about?”

The topic of swords has Kouyou’s thoughts drifting, unbidden, to Izumi Suzu’s ability. She’d seen the katana-wielding specter herself only a handful of times, but it comes to mind now as vividly as it had years prior. “You mentioned having an ability,” she says, watching Yosano for any instant reaction. “May I inquire as to its nature?”

“You may,” says Yosano breezily, against the rim of her glass. Kouyou gives her an unimpressed look, and, with a laugh, she lowers her water. “It’s a healing ability, technically, and a pretty powerful one at that. But the conditions under which it activates are so severe that I don’t really get to use it often these days.” Yosano’s tone is hard to discern, somewhere between disappointment and relief.

“I see,” says Kouyou, nodding. “One of my gifted subordinates is only able to use her ability under extreme emotions or duress. She is not at all an emotional or easily stressed person, so I cannot begin to guess how often she’s able to use it.”

“I imagine that’d be rough, in your organization.” Kouyou lifts a shoulder in a shrug, and Yosano absently taps her finger against the side of her glass. “Then again, you don’t have one at all, right?”

Practice rids Kouyou of any glaring tells, but she still finds herself blinking across the table at Yosano, calm and composed. “What makes you think that?”

“Rumors spread.” Yosano brings her water up to take a quick sip. “That, and sometimes you carry yourself like you’re compensating for something. Sorry,” she adds, though her smile makes it come across as less sincere.

She isn’t wrong, per se, but Kouyou scowls deeper at the analysis nevertheless. “It is difficult,” she concedes, “but the organization does not hold to the exact traditions it did when it was first formed. My immediate predecessor also lacked an ability.”

“So I’ve heard.” Kouyou again can’t help but wonder where from, but Yosano’s expression makes it clear that this isn’t a path of conversation to pursue. “You seem to be doing pretty well for yourself, all things considered.”

“I suppose so.” A smile crosses Kouyou’s face, and she shakes her head. The sound of footsteps has her glancing toward the door, but her gaze has fallen back to the table by the time she says, “You have persuaded me into discussing my work after all, it seems.”

Across the table, Yosano opens her mouth again, but she’s interrupted by the clinking of plates as the waitress sweeps back in with their food. Two meals and their respective appetizers don’t make for a massive amount of clutter, but Kouyou sits back anyway, watching the waitress’s impressive balance of speed and care. She pours them each a glass of a nice-looking bottle of Sancerre, then sets the bottle in between them. Yosano reaches for hers even as she nods in gratitude at the waitress.

The waitress bows, tells them to enjoy their meals, and leaves them to it. Kouyou gives her food a moment to cool off, delicately sipping her wine instead, but after she’s taken a sip of her own, Yosano wastes no time in enjoying hers. There’s a certain grace even in her reckless abandon, Kouyou notes, and soon enough she’s taking up her own chopsticks.

They’re both too busy with their food to hold up a consistent conversation for long, though after a few minutes of clicking utensils and chewing, Yosano does inquire after how good Kouyou’s food is (very, she gets out between delicate bites; Yosano returns the sentiment when Kouyou thinks to ask her), and on occasion they’ll have brief exchanges about anything that comes to mind. Midway through her main dish, Yosano asks if Kouyou likes mahjong. The nonsequitur has her press a hand to her mouth to swallow without choking, but she manages a noncommittal “I have never played enough to truly say.”

A few minutes later, Kouyou asks Yosano about her work as a surgeon. Yosano gives a vague overall statement about it being fine, at least toward the beginning, but laughingly dismisses any in-depth stories until after they’re done eating.

Kouyou stops to stare in disbelief. “If you think me squeamish, then you have gravely misunderstood me, sensei.”

Yosano raises an eyebrow in a challenge that Kouyou accepts by holding her stare. With a snort, Yosano lowers her chopsticks. “This one time,” she says, eyes wandering as though she’s sifting around for a particularly nauseating anecdote, “I was helping with a vascular operation, and this guy’s blood came splashing out and hit me right in the face. Some of it got under my mask and almost into my mouth. It wasn’t infected or anything, luckily, but still.”

“Is that all?” Kouyou continues placidly eating her tempura. “It will take far more than that to truly disgust me. I have witnessed—” and performed, she doesn’t add “—more eviscerations and dismemberments than I can count.”

“Oho?” Eyes glinting, Yosano picks her chopsticks back up and starts back in on her meal. “If that’s the case, then I guess you wouldn’t mind hearing about all the cadavers I dissected in med school.”

“I would find that quite interesting, as a matter of fact.”

The private room serves to their benefit, preventing any other patrons from complaining about them ruining their appetites with the morbid discussion. Once, when Yosano is in the middle of describing a particularly gory stab wound she’d had to care for, the waitress passes by, and the momentary glimpse Kouyou gets of her disturbed as she hurries to move past has her covering a smile with her sleeve.

By the time Kouyou is taking the last bite of her food, she’s been so thoroughly distracted by the conversation that the empty plates take her by surprise. Across the table, Yosano finishes her kimosui with a hearty slurp. When she sets her bowl down, her eyes flicker across the array of clean dishes with a hint of similar shock. Then she brings her gaze up to meet Kouyou’s.

They open their mouths to speak in the exact same instant.

“Shall we—”

“Do you—” Yosano stops first, gesturing for Kouyou to finish, but when Kouyou shakes her head she clears her throat. “I was going to ask if you wanted to play a game.”

Kouyou’s brows pinch together. Shall we head out now? had been more along the lines of her suggestion, but before she can dismiss the proposal outright, she hears herself echo, “A game?”

“Mm. Nothing too elaborate, just asking questions back and forth: You ask a question, I answer and then ask you a question, and so on and so forth. In the sake of time, we’ll cap it at twenty each, or just in general. I would make it a drinking game—” mournfully, Yosano eyes the single sip left in her glass “—but I probably shouldn’t have any more if I want to make it to the subway.” She drains what’s left of her wine but doesn’t make to pour any more. “We don’t have to,” she adds, glancing at Kouyou when she says nothing, “but I thought it’d be a fun way to wrap things up. If you’re done, we can just pay—” she pats the bill the waitress had left with their meals “—and head out, though.”

Her tone is light, offering no blatant indication of her own preference. Kouyou waits a moment longer, reaches for her own glass, and sips.

“I don’t mind,” she says once she’s lowered it, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with her sleeve. She lowers her hands to her lap. “Did you intend to start, or shall I?”

The grin that splits across Yosano’s face, a bit loosened by the wine, has Kouyou looking away. “Floor’s yours.”

The first few exchanges are mindless, generic trivia—favorite wine, favorite color, favorite season—and primarily questions they parrot back to each other. As they continue on, however, Yosano digs a little deeper. What Kouyou’s favorite thing to do with Kyouka is (a more difficult one to answer than any other, if only because there are so many potential answers). How long she’s been the leader of the Port Mafia (she’s tipsy enough that she can’t recount this off the top of her head, and takes the time to calculate it, having to press her hand to her forehead when she realizes it’ll be fourteen years in November). If, not counting Chuuya, she’s an only child.

“Figures,” says Yosano, when the answer to this is a simple yes, only to laugh at Kouyou’s ensuing expression. “Don’t worry, I am too. Mostly.”

Kouyou’s next question, instead of the vague inquiry about the hair pin Yosano always wears (even tonight, it catches the amber lighting in the room), is about what that had meant. “Ranpo is more or less like a brother to me,” is Yosano’s easy answer, accompanied with a shrug, “though it’s nothing as official as you and your brother. How many kimonos do you own?”

There are one or two questions each, maybe, they don’t answer; shrugging, Yosano counts them toward the total of twenty regardless. When Kouyou gets around to asking about Yosano’s butterfly pin, this is one of those. It had seemed innocuous enough to her, but she moves on nevertheless, having to decline Yosano’s subsequent question about how Chuuya had come into her care just the same.

Kouyou can feel even more time passing, but it’s almost surprising when Yosano prefaces a question with “Okay, last one.” It’s more surprising, though, when the question returns to the inane: “What’s your favorite animal?”

The question takes her more off-guard than she honestly expects, and Kouyou is somewhat certain she takes at least a full minute to respond. “I am not especially fond of any animal, really,” is her final answer, “but in the past couple of years, I have grown a liking for rabbits.”

Yosano nods, satisfied. None of her wine remains—halfway to reaching for the bottle, she stops herself with a sly smile, grabbing her certainly lukewarm water instead.

A feeling of simultaneous longing—for what, she can’t say—and relief settles over Kouyou. As the evening has slipped away, the background music has softened, going from more upbeat, energetic pop to something slower. More romantic, Kouyou might think of it as, were she so inclined. She isn’t, so she sets the thought aside and leans back to listen.

Yosano notices. “I wouldn’t take you as a big fan of this type of music,” she says, eyeing Kouyou with some sharpness beneath the post-meal haziness.

“I am not particularly a fan, as you say, of any music, really,” says Kouyou, even. “But this is pleasant. My driver listens to this sort of thing most often, so I suppose I am used to it as well.”

“Well, it is nice.” Yosano’s lips curve up into a calm smile. They sit there for a moment in that careful orbit, watching one another through half-drowsy stares, before Yosano sits back. “Unless you wanted to have any more rousing discussions, though, I suppose we ought to figure out the bill now.” She eyes it where the waitress had set it some time ago.

“I suppose so,” says Kouyou, ignoring the slight tug in her stomach. Should she stay out any longer, she reasons as she glances over at the surprisingly dark sky, she’s not sure she’ll make it home in good time.

(What had she told Kyouka and Chuuya? That this would be over in around an hour? Now it’s been multiple—at least two, if not more—and she finds herself frowning at the realization.)

Yosano’s eyes return to hers. They stare at each other, engaging in a silent negotiation before simultaneously opening their mouths.

“I’ll pay,” they say in unison.

A pause. Lightning crackles in Yosano’s gaze, even as she maintains her smile, although now it seems far harsher than it did moments earlier.

Kouyou’s eyes narrow. “I am more than capable of covering it,” she says before Yosano can speak. “You needn’t put yourself out.”

“Please, it’s my treat. If I intended to foist the whole bill onto you, I would have invited you to a kaiseki dinner instead.” Yosano grins at her own comment, then folds her arms, tapping her fingers in thought. “We could just split it,” she suggests. “I can pay for my meal, you can pay for yours, and we can each pay for half of the wine.”

Kouyou opens her mouth to argue further—and finds herself incapable of doing so, aside from over the smallest part of the idea. “I ordered the wine,” she says, “so I may as well pay for all of it.”

“I drank more of it than you,” points out Yosano, looking pointedly at her empty glass next to Kouyou’s two-thirds-empty one. “What if we just split the bill all the way down the middle? I think our dinners cost about the same, so that shouldn’t be that different.”

With gritted teeth and competitive flairs on both sides, they partition out their yen, and Yosano passes hers over to Kouyou as she stands. Almost silent, neither seeming to want to address the impending conclusion of things, they file out of the room and back toward the entrance, passing dining families and couples on their way out. Once Kouyou steps up to the counter, Yosano heads for the door.

“I’ll see you in a minute or two, I expect,” she says, adjusting her jacket where she’d thrown it on. Before Kouyou has the chance to respond, she’s stepping out, and the hostess is bowing deeper than Kouyou thinks is necessary as she thanks them for their service.

In a minute, indeed, Kouyou is stepping outside to join Yosano. The fresh night air has her taking in a breath the instant it hits her; it’s even later than she’d thought, and though the warmth from earlier in the day is still palpable, there’s a definite undercurrent of a chill now. All the same, Kouyou allows it to wash over her face for the time being. She reaches up to brush her hair down where the wind has stirred it out of place. With her free hand, she rifles for her phone in her clutch, making to text Kasa.

As she types out a brief message, she notices that Yosano is by her side still, neither speaking nor watching her all that closely. “Haven’t you a train to catch?” asks Kouyou, glancing over her shoulder.

Yosano shrugs. “It can wait a few minutes. You have to wait for your car anyway, right?” she says, eyeing the phone still in Kouyou’s hands.

Before she can answer, it buzzes with a text. I can be there in just under twenty-five minutes, Kouyou-sama, Kasa has assured her, tacking on a cheerful kaomoji. Did you enjoy yourself this evening?

Kouyou doesn’t answer, just tucking her phone back in her clutch and folding it shut. “I do,” she tells Yosano. They both shift to avoid another woman walking out of the restaurant, a dogged-looking young man a couple of paces behind her. “And I should do it in a place that does not congest traffic.”

It isn’t quite intended as a dismissal, but it could be interpreted as one nevertheless; Yosano, however, only smiles. “Lead the way, then.”

They relocate to a part of the sidewalk where they aren’t in the way of any other passersby. Kouyou isn’t quite used to security in the form of a woman almost twenty centimeters shorter than she standing vigil beside her, eyes scanning their surroundings rather than Kouyou but darting toward her on occasion. Whatever Yosano sees in her face, Kouyou decides she isn’t certain she wants to know, and so she turns her head to the side.

Countless bright lights are shining in the distance, and the city is as generally noisy at night as it ever is, but the silence that settles over the two of them is content and pleasant. Involuntarily, Kouyou’s shoulders loosen. The weight in her stomach and faint buzz of decent wine in her bloodstream doesn’t hurt matters, nor does the quiet intimacy as they hover here, public but alone.

The dark sky sprawls above, faded stars just visible against the gradient of black to light purplish-blue. Kouyou’s chin tilts back to allow her to take it in. She can’t help but wonder when the last time she was able to enjoy such an agreeable lull with anyone besides Kyouka—or anyone else who’s become a constant in her personal life—was. She chooses not to try to answer that question even to herself, instead taking in a breath thick enough with ozone that she won’t be surprised if it rains tomorrow.

The breeze persists, stirring the loose, thin material of Kouyou’s kimono. With her layers and the lingering swelter of early July, she’s not even close to shivering, but she half-wishes she’d opted to grab her haori after all.

Her eyes raised, she isn’t paying attention to Yosano, so it startles Kouyou more than it should when a weight falls across her shoulders—Yosano’s jacket, she realizes the instant she glances down. It’s too short for her, maybe falling to the thighs on Yosano but barely reaching the waist on Kouyou. Though there is a slight chill now, the jacket is also too heavy for even that.

Despite this, Kouyou’s hands are jolting to its collar automatically. The bulky warmth it provides borders on uncomfortable, but Kouyou doesn’t shed it, only twisting her head to look at Yosano.

Yosano holds up her hands and laughs, the sound ringing out as clear and bright as a bell. “I don’t need it, so you take it for now.”

“I do not need it either. The car has a heater, as does my house, and it is frankly not cold enough to warrant a jacket or heater at all,” protests Kouyou, even as she adjusts the lapels. Yosano gives her a disbelieving look. Lips pursed, Kouyou still wavers. “If you truly don’t mind, then I will return it when we part ways.”

“If we see each other again, you can just give it back then.”

Given the light tone they’re voiced in, and how meaningless they would be out of context, the words hang far more heavily than they should. Kouyou stiffens. She doesn’t make to remove the jacket from her shoulders, but neither does she cling to it any tighter.

Yosano sighs softly, more to herself than for Kouyou’s sake. “I’ve enjoyed tonight,” she says, reaching up to tuck part of her bangs behind her ear, “and, though you’re free to correct me on this, I was under the impression that you have as well.” She pauses, but Kouyou says nothing. “If you’re not interested in going on another date, then no worries—we gave it a shot, and like I’ve said, I’ll get over it. Don’t force yourself to pursue this for my sake, either.”

“Sensei,” Kouyou brings herself to say, eyes narrowing, “do I seem like the sort of person who would tolerate anything I was not interested in simply to please another, let alone a mere acquaintance?”

“No,” says Yosano, huffing out a short laugh. “But you do seem like the sort of person who’s given yourself an allergy to emotional vulnerability, so I want to make sure you’re being honest with me. And yourself.”

Kouyou’s lips thin. She supposes that’s a fair enough assessment, although she’s told Yosano as much aloud, minus the particulars of the phrasing.

“I’ll just ask you outright.” Yosano draws in a breath and rests her hands on her hips, which seems to be more so to have something to do with them than to appear defiant. “Would you be interested in going out with me again, Ozaki?”

The words, direct and neutral in tone, hang even more thickly between them. Kouyou shifts under the weight of both them and the jacket still around her shoulders, which she still doesn’t bother to divest herself of, even though her temperature has been increasing by the minute. Yosano doesn’t seem to expect an immediate answer, but her eyes remain on Kouyou nevertheless.

Kouyou knows what answer she wants to give, and she’s no longer certain what answer she should give. Her lips press tighter together nevertheless. She isn’t any more inclined to verbally agree with Yosano’s description of her as being allergic to emotional vulnerability, but Kouyou grimaces as she runs them over in her mind.

People like you are all about calculated risks, aren’t they? she hears Edogawa asking. So, if you’re interested, take this one.

If you want to do something, she hears Kyouka saying, too, then you should do it.

She thinks of the glint in Yosano’s eyes; her own increasing interest as she’d learned more about Yosano over the past several hours; the warm jacket around her shoulders; the ease with which Yosano speaks to her, like engaging an old friend rather than a mafia boss she’s still only met a handful of times. She can’t bring herself to voice it, can barely even think it, but perhaps this risk is one worth taking.

In a halting voice, Kouyou says, instead of anything so flagrant, “I would be amenable to seeing you again.”

“In what context?” Yosano’s voice is calm, and when Kouyou gives her an askance look for the pointed question she waves a hand. “I’m not trying to flirt or tease right now, I swear. I really do just want an answer.”

“In the same context as tonight.” At the softness—volume-wise—of her own tone, Kouyou fights a grimace, giving her head a minute shake instead. “Going on another date, as you phrased it, would be—acceptable.”

“Just acceptable?” A muscle in Kouyou’s jaw twitches, but when she looks over this time, it’s to find Yosano laughing. “Okay, that time I was teasing. I’d find that acceptable, too.” Her smile widens, ostensibly in amusement, but there’s also a spark of genuine delight to it that has Kouyou averting her gaze. “And there won’t be any conflict with your work or Izumi, right?”

“…I cannot wholly say no. I am a busy woman,” concedes Kouyou, “and I have a great many responsibilities that take significant priority over—” She makes a vague gesture between the two of them, unsure what word to use. Romance? Relationships? Courtship?

Yosano seems to understand the implication, nodding in acknowledgment. “I know that much. I meant more along the lines of, say, direct physical harm coming about because of this.”

“I cannot guarantee that, either.” Kouyou’s voice is only above a murmur due to years of training herself out of ever speaking in a whisper. She keeps her gaze on the distant skyline. “No matter how many precautions are taken, rumors still spread. I particularly cannot say that I will be the one to face any potential harm rather than you.”

“And as I said, that’s not a dealbreaker for me.” Yosano adjusts her skirt, just enough that Kouyou can see, with some amount of surprise, the knife—cleaver, perhaps—strapped to her thigh (the one not naturally bared by the side slit, at least). “Is it one for you?”

Kouyou opens her mouth, but she ends up saying nothing, unsure where even to start. Her frown tightens. The question brings her back to a time she had once all but lived in, even when it hadn’t been the present, and now tries not to think of too often. If she closes her eyes, she can see blood staining a furisode she’d long since burned; if she evens out her breathing, she can feel the crushing weight of the world and all its despair upon her, far too heavy for an adolescent girl to bear.

But that’s nothing that hasn’t been breathing down her neck all evening, all week, all month, a reminder of what happens when attachments are made. It had been in another life, when she was a follower rather than a leader, a naive fourteen-year-old rather than a sharp woman halfway into her thirties. Kouyou has more examples, now, for what comes of attachment.

“I am not certain,” she manages, staring forward. “For the time being, no.”

Yosano is eyeing her with something like concern, but she doesn’t ask any further, just nodding a little. “If it becomes one, let me know. So you’re still interested in another date?”

Kouyou’s exhale is a bit too sharp, but if Yosano notices, she says nothing. “I am.”

“All right. Going back to your schedule—” rubbing at her neck, Yosano sighs when a knot produces a crunching sound loud enough for Kouyou to hear “—would it be too much of a hassle to exchange phone numbers? I don’t know when I’ll be free next either, so we might as well set up a way to communicate. We can’t keep just relying on coincidence to throw us together,” she adds dryly.

Kouyou allows for a slow nod, reaching into her clutch to pull out her phone again. “I fear I don’t text often,” she says, passing it over, “so you may need to take the first step with this.”

“Fine by me.” Yosano takes out her own phone, from which a charm of a Kewpie doll with half of its cartoony intestines showing like an anatomical model dangles, and swaps it for Kouyou’s.

Giving the charm a look somewhere between unimpressed and amused, Kouyou adds her number under the label of a dagger emoji. Yosano laughs when she sees it. She’d left her contact in Kouyou’s phone as a simple Yosano, but with a pause of consideration, Kouyou changes this to a butterfly emoji, then slips her phone back into her clutch.

“Should I worry about you having to change numbers or anything?” asks Yosano, eyes on her phone.

“Likely not. I use other lines for business; the only reason Kasa-san has this number is because, at her insistence, I should be able to contact her from anywhere.”

“I see.” Yosano hums with consideration, putting her phone away again. “Thanks for offering it to me, then.”

Kouyou lifts one shoulder, not shrugging but not doing anything else either. Yosano doesn’t seem to be looking for a response, though; as Kouyou’s had, her attention flickers to the sky, seemingly out of a lack of anything else to say. The calm smile resting on her face has Kouyou’s peripheral vision lingering on her far longer than she intends.

For a couple of moments more, they stand there in a still, tranquil silence. Kouyou’s eyes wander across the surrounding city now rather than the sky; others are milling about, both on foot and in vehicles, though the traffic in this part of town tonight is fairly light. The words they’re exchanging amongst themselves are too distant to make out, but Kouyou’s gaze flits between the people she can see regardless. Laughter and cheer ring through the air. It’s a far cry from the parts of the city Kouyou is used to seeing at night, desolate and grim, the sounds of gunshots and slashing blades far more common than the sort of casual conversation that can be found in all directions here.

A rumbling sound interrupts Kouyou’s thoughts. She glances down the block to see a familiar car pulling up just a few meters away, headlights flashing in a pattern that isn’t quite an agreed-upon code but Kouyou assumes is to be taken as a signal nevertheless. She smiles, dry, and listens to it idling for a second longer.

“I believe my ride has arrived,” she says, already stepping forward. Yosano’s jacket shifts with the movement, bringing Kouyou’s attention to it for a heartbeat, as though she’d forgotten its weight. She tugs at the loose sleeves. “Did you want this back after all?”

“Like I said, you can just give it back next time.” Yosano smiles, bright and confident. “I’ll talk to you later, Ozaki. Have a good rest of your night.”

“The same to you.” Kouyou lowers her head slightly, the gesture not quite shy but still stiffer than usual. “It is still difficult for me to say so in such explicit terms,” she says, head remaining in its dipped position, “but I did enjoy myself tonight.”

When she rises, it’s to meet a pair of eyes brighter than the scattered, hazy stars above. “I did too,” says Yosano, shifting her weight, “but you already know that much. I’ll see you around, then.”

This time, there’s more intent in it than the offhanded way they’ve each said it in the past, Yosano’s eyes crinkling at the edges with the breadth of her wry smile. Kouyou can’t help but return it even as she inclines her head again, now in a nod rather than a halfhearted bow.

“You shall,” she says. “Goodnight, Yosano-sensei.”

Without waiting for a response, she strides off, jacket flowing after her.

*

By the time Kouyou gets home, it’s just past eleven, the time surprising even her but weighing down on her all the same. The sky is pitch dark above, only familiarity and the combined light of the distant streetlamps and the remnants of Kasa’s headlights helping her make her way to the front door.

There, hand closing over her keys, Kouyou pauses. She’d spent the whole of the drive watching the cityscape scroll past, sure somewhere that it would make sense for it to have been drastically altered but not, on a logical level, expecting it to be any different from any other night. A date, let alone one with genuine interest and the promise of more attached, had felt so out of her standard routine that it would have felt natural for it to have caused some sort of ripple effect. It wouldn’t have surprised her had the laws of physics themselves bent to her will out of nowhere.

Nothing, however, had been measurably different. Kouyou had looked out at the same Yokohama she always had, with the same mix of elegance and ferocity composing her form as ever. It had made sense, but at the same time, she’d frowned at how normal the world had still seemed.

Though Kasa’s perpetual smile had seemed wider than usual, she hadn’t made conversation beyond the brief greetings and farewells. Rather than sinking into the introspection the quiet had granted her, Kouyou had kept her eyes on the window and settled into the sense of rigid calm stemming from the buzz in her system. (Pointedly, she’d kept herself from wondering whether it was all from the wine or at least in part due to Yosano’s company.)

A click draws Kouyou’s attention to the fact that she’s already unlocked the door. With a sigh, she steps inside. Almost as soon as her feet hit the wood, she’s discarding her shoes, clutch, and Yosano’s jacket, the last of which she hesitates for a split second before pulling off. For a moment, Kouyou stands there just past the door, breathing slowly in and out.

The television is still on, judging from the distant murmur of tinny sound. Kouyou listens for a moment, but when she fails to strain her ears enough to discern anything, she shakes herself and makes her way, steps quiet but firm, down the hall. An absent frown has crossed her face by the time she rounds the corner. When she gets close enough to see the figures on the couch, it curves upright into a fond smile.

Lit by the cool, flickering glow of the TV, Chuuya and Kyouka are both asleep. Chuuya’s arms are crossed, and his head is tilted back; Kyouka’s entire body is slanted to the side, cheek resting against his shoulder. Their faces are soft in sleep. Kyouka’s expression maintains its typical stoicism, but with the openness that can only come from having drool leak from one’s mouth. Similarly, Chuuya looks the most relaxed Kouyou has seen him in the past five years (while sober, at least). His hair, Kouyou notes with amusement, is arranged into a braid messy enough to have been composed by the nimble but inexperienced hands of a twelve-year-old. Every exhale blows stray wisps away from his face.

With as little noise as possible, Kouyou takes out her phone to snap a quick picture. The lighting from the television is decent enough that she doesn’t have to risk turning on the flash, and no doubt she’s not the only one who would appreciate it, she reasons as she sends a quick text.

Neither has stirred by the time Kouyou puts her phone away and looks back at them. She takes in the scene for another moment, smile stretching wider, before bending to shake Chuuya awake.

He’s always slept light, by necessity and a lack of dreams if nothing else, and it only takes a couple of taps for his eyes to snap open. Blearily, he blinks up at Kouyou, realization setting in after a few seconds. With a quiet groan, he pulls himself into a more upright position. The shift in posture doesn’t shake Kyouka off; instead, she tips forward to follow.

“Shit,” mutters Chuuya, scratching at his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Around eleven. You had a nice nap, I take it.” Kouyou lets her smile grow more sly than gentle. “Kyouka did wonderfully with your hair, too.”

Chuuya is already fumbling in his pocket for his phone to verify the time. “Not too bad, then,” he says, not acknowledging her other comment with more than a slight flush in the ears. “Kyouka fell asleep sometime around nine-forty.” He glances over as if he’s only now noticed her position, then tenses, albeit not enough to shake Kyouka off. A conflicted look crosses his face—one Kouyou is intimately familiar with, due to having worn it herself more than a few times. “I don’t think she’s moved since.”

Kouyou hums. In certain weather, Kyouka is as easy to wake as either of them, and she used to snap awake in the middle of the night during summer too. Now, though, she’s as still as a statue when Kouyou reaches down to smooth her bangs away from her parted mouth. A soft snore disrupts the silence.

Shoulders stiffer than they’d been the first time he’d pulled a knife on a man (in Kouyou’s presence), Chuuya watches for a moment. Then, tucking his phone away, he sighs. “Guess she should sleep in an actual bed sometime tonight.”

“Likely so,” says Kouyou, inclining her head.

Chuuya rearranges himself so one arm is supporting Kyouka’s weight. Either of them could lift Kyouka with ease, but since Chuuya has already started to, Kouyou steps back. Kyouka is light enough that he doesn’t need to use his ability to heft her up against his chest, even to ease the process, or perhaps it’s just out of concern that he’d wake her. That care is obvious enough, at least, in the careful way he readjusts his grip to support her legs and back. Kyouka’s face twitches, as do her fingers where her limp arm is slung around Chuuya’s shoulders, but otherwise she doesn’t stir.

Before Chuuya takes a single step, Kouyou strides ahead and upstairs, gliding down the hall to open Kyouka’s door. The curtains haven’t been drawn, and moonlight streams in; it and the desk lamp, once Kouyou flicks it on, serve as the only sources of illumination in the otherwise dim room.

She’s just stepped back from the lamp when the floor creaks with Chuuya’s arrival. Still holding Kyouka gingerly, he nods in brief thanks toward Kouyou, who again steps out of the way. He sets Kyouka down on one side of the bed, where she curls into herself atop the covers, and pauses to pat her head (Kouyou averts her gaze and pretends not to have seen). With a clear of his throat, he straightens again and starts toward the door.

“I shall be with you in a moment,” Kouyou tells him over her shoulder, not looking away from Kyouka’s serene face.

Chuuya doesn’t respond, just pauses with a huff before stepping out. His footsteps haven’t yet faded when Kouyou takes a cautious seat at the edge of the bed. Kyouka continues to lie still, cheek nestling closer into the sheets. Her eyelashes are starting to flutter now, lines of tension forming along her face, and her fingers are flexing where they’re curled together.

Kouyou nudges her shoulder. “Kyouka?” she prompts, just loud enough that Kyouka’s eyebrow twitches. She’d intended to leave her to her rest, but if she’s already stirring… “Kyouka, dear, are you awake?”

She waits, listening to the even rhythm of Kyouka’s breathing start to speed up and watching her half-open mouth close, scrunching at the same time her eyelids slide up. Kyouka doesn’t seem sure where she is for a moment, squinting around before her narrowed eyes settle on Kouyou’s face. For a beat, she only blinks—then, still half-asleep, she turns her gaze on the ceiling.

“Good evening,” says Kouyou, allowing for a smile. “I shall not keep you up long. I simply wanted to check if you wished to change before bed.”

“Change?” Kyouka frowns, then glances down at herself, still dressed in today’s clothes. “Oh. Yes.”

She starts to sit up; Kouyou stands so she has a clean way off the bed. “I’ll leave you, then.” Though Kyouka is staring across the room, presumably trying to make out the bathroom door in the dim lighting, rather than at her, Kouyou dips her head. “Unless there was anything else you needed?”

Kyouka pauses again, looking over as she staggers to her feet. Her legs threaten to give out beneath her, and she steadies herself on the wall. It takes a couple of moments to recover, during which Kouyou waits patiently and holds herself back from rushing over to offer assistance, but after she’s had the chance to process the question, Kyouka shakes her head.

She takes a careful step, but Kouyou brushes a hand against her shoulder before she can get too far. “Goodnight, then,” she says when Kyouka’s eyes snap to her again. “Sleep well.”

Still looking fairly sleepy, Kyouka nods and murmurs a swift “Goodnight.” She stumbles farther toward the bathroom, using the desk she passes for support.

Kouyou starts toward the door, then glances over her shoulder. “I quite liked what you did with Chuuya’s hair, by the way,” she says, meeting another look of momentary confusion with a smile. “You should consider trying it more often.”

Kyouka manages an impish smile. When she reaches forward to push open the bathroom door, she almost trips and has to slap a hand against the door frame.

“I’m fine,” she tells Kouyou when she starts forward, the reassurance half-interrupted by a yawn. “Goodnight.”

She fumbles for the light switch in the bathroom, and, allowing for one last “Goodnight, child” of her own, Kouyou turns to go. She pulls the bedroom door behind her and waits outside for a crash. When the only forthcoming noise is that of running water from the bathroom, Kouyou smiles to herself and heads for the stairs.

The sound of movement from the kitchen guides her in that direction. When Kouyou steps in, she’s not surprised to find the lights turned on, nor to see Chuuya seated at the counter, glancing over his shoulder when she enters. A 2011 bottle of Garrus is sitting before him, the exact suggestion Kouyou would have made had she arrived two minutes earlier. Two glasses are set out, and the one in front of Chuuya is filled to the brim, a clear indication that he intends to occupy the spare room upstairs tonight. Kouyou doesn’t mind—it’s late and dark enough that even driving sober would be a concern, and she has the space—but doesn’t point it out either, just settling down on the stool beside him.

“How was Kyouka tonight?” she asks lightly. This, perhaps, is a tradition as long-lasting—if removed by a few years, because Kouyou had ignored the underage drinking in her household but had refused to lower herself to drinking with teenagers except for that one occasion at Mori’s funeral—as their shared tea.

“Do you really need to ask that?” says Chuuya, scoffing as he reaches over to fill her glass. “She was fine, as usual.”

“There is no harm in confirming that.” Kouyou accepts her drink with a slight nod. She doesn’t sip from it yet, the taste of Sancerre still at the back of her mouth. “I imagine nothing too eventful occurred, aside from her apparently braiding your hair.”

The braid is still in place—as in place as it is to begin with, anyway—and Chuuya reaches up to brush it back almost subconsciously. “I’ve cut hers, so it seems fair enough for her to fuck with mine. And no, mostly we just watched the boxing matches that were on.”

“Hm. Did either of you learn anything?”

“Nah, not really. Had fun watching the guys who bragged about how tough they were in all the interviews leading up to the fights get their asses kicked, though.”

“I imagine so.” Chuuya hasn’t made so much as a move to drink from his glass yet, just watching Kouyou out of the corners of his eyes as he speaks; as she lifts her own wine, she decides to take pity on him. “All right,” she allows, eyes closing. “Ask away, lad.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have phrased it in such a manner, for it takes less than a full second for Chuuya to straighten up and grab his glass. “So,” he says, not quite able to feign boredom, “how was your date?”

Kouyou sighs, takes a sip, and talks.

*

Most mornings, Kouyou stirs before the sun has even risen and is up and at it before its last rays have shone across the horizon. Her sleep schedule has never been a good one, all things considered, with how often she sleeps late and wakes early, but with her profession, she considers herself lucky to get any sleep at all. Her work and Kyouka’s school both make getting up early necessary, anyway. Though there are alarms on her phone, they often buzz well after she’s woken.

Today, however, when her eyes open, it’s to the distant ringing of her first alarm of the morning.

Kouyou’s internal clock has her dragging herself up, jolting free from the sheets to fumble to turn that buzzing off. So rarely does she hear more than the first few chimes that she’s not used to how obnoxious it is, even though she’d chosen it for that very purpose.

It’s quiet enough that Kyouka won’t have heard it down the hall, or so Kouyou hopes. It is a Sunday, after all, and neither of them has any particular plans for the day; Kouyou is due to receive reports from Akutagawa and Higuchi come evening, and she has a meeting with one of her military police spies early in the afternoon, but otherwise, she has few plans beyond introspection and spending time with Kyouka where she can.

…perhaps the first isn’t as concrete as she makes it seem, but it has seemed to creep up on her as of late. Now, however, isn’t the time for it, she decides as she dismisses the memories of the night before that crop up.

Checking her phone, Kouyou sees that it isn’t uncomfortably late, just enough off her usual schedule to throw her off for a moment. She’s not sure whether she’s hoping for Yosano to have texted, but it seems that simultaneous relief and disappointment wash over her when she sees that she hasn’t. Instead, Kouyou pulls a face at the notification from Dazai, replying to the picture she’d sent with only an expression of laughter. She notes with some dismay that his response had come at three-twenty in the morning—it would be hypocritical for her to nitpick another’s sleep schedule, however, so she leaves the message alone with a shake of her head.

Though she stares at her phone for almost another minute, no more texts are forthcoming, so with a grimace that she sees in her reflection on the screen, Kouyou sets her phone forcefully down. Then, swallowing a yawn, she pushes herself to her feet and toward the bathroom.

Her head is buzzing somewhat from the wine last night, but her tolerance has always been sufficient. (Would that she could say the same for Chuuya, who will likely be asleep for at least another hour or two.) Thus, it’s only with a mild prickling behind her temple and movements a touch slower, accounting for the dull ache in her bones and her aversion to bright lights, that she goes about her usual morning routine and makes her way out to the kitchen to start on breakfast.

The process is as quiet as it can be, the house still except for her machinations. Kouyou takes a certain peace in the comfortable ease of it, an almost too mundane scene compared to the full-on leap she’d taken from her comfort zone the night before. There is a degree of humor, Kouyou thinks, in a date spurring more discomfort from her than murder and torture ever have, but she doesn’t dwell on it.

Practice and natural knowledge of Kyouka’s schedule have her wrapping up just in time to hear the squeak of a pair of rabbit-patterned slippers on the tile. At the sound, Kouyou lifts her head from where she’s setting the last of the dishes on the table.

Kyouka stares at her for a second, stopping in the doorway, before bowing her head. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” returns Kouyou with a smile, already settling down on one end of the table. She sweeps a hand toward the side opposite her. “Sit, won’t you? You must be hungry.”

The question, already rhetorical, goes unanswered. Silently (save for her footsteps), Kyouka pads her way across the room and comes to sit across from Kouyou. She shuffles on her knees a couple of times, getting comfortable. Her hands twitch toward her chopsticks, but she stays still long enough to mumble a thanks before digging in.

For a couple of minutes, they eat in silence save for the natural commotion of eating. Kyouka picks at her food with the same bird-like fickleness she does some mornings, more so out of some combination of hunger and sleepiness than purposeful shyness; though she keeps alternating between dishes, her mouth is always half-full. Kouyou enjoys her meal at a more leisurely, steady pace. That introspection seems to be nipping at her heels earlier than she’d expected—every time she lowers her chopsticks, her mind wanders for an instant, and whenever she focuses again, it’s to find Kyouka watching her.

Kyouka’s interpersonal skills could admittedly use improving, which Kouyou suspects is at least in part her fault, but it’s already clear how much of her parents’ observational skills she’d inherited. What isn’t genetic or from her environment for her first ten years of life, too, she’s picked up in the past two. Kouyou is sure Kyouka can’t tell what’s on her mind; she’s clever and perceptive, not a flat-out mind reader. Still, her watchfulness gives Kouyou pause, and she makes to speak earlier than she normally would on such a morning.

“You look well-rested,” is her introduction, spoken in between bites of salmon. “Did you end up sleeping all right?” Without hesitation, Kyouka nods, cheeks puffing out with her current mouthful, and Kouyou accepts it at face value. “I returned home later than I expected last night, so I hadn’t the opportunity to ask how yours went.”

Kyouka swallows, then lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “It was okay,” she says, prodding at her rice. “We mostly just watched TV. There was a lot of boxing on, I think. I was tired.”

“I noticed,” says Kouyou, smiling, mind drifting back to the fond image of Kyouka and Chuuya asleep on the couch. “It was uneventful, then?” She keeps her tone neutral, unsure if this had been good or bad, and is met with a nod. Something flickers in Kyouka’s gaze, and Kouyou recalls their conversation before she’d left. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t end up having to fake a fever?”

There is the slightest of delays before Kyouka nods, an extremely reluctant gesture that contradicts her blatant look of disappointment. Kouyou gives an amused huff into her tea.

“All the same, my night went fine as well,” she says—Kyouka looks interested, but Kouyou will spare her the pain of having to ask outright. “Dinner was pleasant, as was the company. I am, I suppose, glad that I simply did it, as you suggested.”

This time, when Kyouka nods, it’s with faint relief. She reaches for her soup to take a few cautious sips, flinching away when it’s a hair too hot.

“Careful, there, child.” Kouyou’s belated warning earns her a slight glare, one that she can’t help but muffle a laugh at, even if it only makes Kyouka frown deeper.

Out of what seems to be spite, Kyouka takes another long sip. She’s going pink in the face by the time she sets her bowl down, and she has to hold her hand over her mouth to manage to swallow, but she seems satisfied with herself all the same.

Kouyou shakes her head, returning to her rice rather than touching her miso soup now. The silence picks back up as they resume eating. An elephant is in the room, breathing down the back of Kouyou’s neck, and she decides with a sigh to address it before it becomes too much of a hassle. She chews what she has in her mouth and sets her chopsticks down. The click gets Kyouka to glance up, and her eyes lower to follow the motion when Kouyou folds her hands on the edge of the table.

“Kyouka,” she says carefully, “you like your school physician, yes?”

Kyouka doesn’t seem to expect this question, from how many times she blinks. Kouyou doesn’t hold her breath, but she does watch with mild apprehension that falls away when Kyouka at last nods, slow but sure.

“Yes,” Kyouka tells her, expression unchanging but earnestness clear. “She’s cool. She showed me some of her cleavers when I went into her office for a stomachache once. And she said that if anyone tried to pick on me again she would kick their asses.”

Kouyou almost laughs—that does sound like Yosano—before remembering to shake her head. “Hardly professional,” she acknowledges, “and you likely weren’t meant to repeat that to me—” Kyouka just shrugs “—but I cannot say I do not respect the sentiment.”

She’s waffling about how to continue from there, prodding at her umeboshi, when Kyouka gives her the opportunity by asking, “Why did you want to know about her?”

Rather than answering at once, Kouyou takes her time chewing the umeboshi she’d taken—perhaps more time than she needs, really, attempting to delay her answer even when she’s able to put it into suitable words. Under Kyouka’s pointed stare, though, it at last becomes inevitable.

Kouyou swallows, closes her eyes, and opens them again. “She was my dinner companion last night,” she says, allowing for a thin smile, “so it seemed relevant.”

“Oh.” Kyouka’s eyes widen, though the surprise in her gaze soon morphs into curiosity. She seems unsure how to react to that for a moment; though her attention remains on Kouyou, she reaches to eat some more of her sweetfish before attempting to speak again. “Are you dating now?”

“That… is a question to be answered another day.” The intention had been clear enough, but they had never touched upon it in direct terms, and Kouyou would feel uncomfortable explicitly describing herself as being in a relationship after only a single night, however decent, nonetheless. She takes a sip of tea to obscure her uncomfortable expression and grant her a moment to think. “However,” she adds, setting the cup back down, “it is possible that we will meet under such a context again.”

Kyouka continues to stare impassively at Kouyou for another stretch of silence, then nods and holds out a thumbs-up. “I approve.”

“Why, thank you, Kyouka,” says Kouyou, mouth curving wryly but tone more genuine than she expects. “I do appreciate your input. If I am to bring someone new into my life, I am bringing them into yours as well, after all. Your approval is just as important as my own in such a case.”

She’s used to considering this, but the most personal she’s gotten with it is Atsushi. Even with a glowing (well, as glowing as Dazai could be) recommendation, she’d kept at least two Mafia guards on him at all times at first, and she’d had to see what a high opinion Kyouka had of him—and vice versa—to soften to him herself.

Bringing in someone of her own accord, let alone someone she’s seen for one date and may again, is far from ordinary. The thought of introducing a romantic partner to Kyouka is one that had never crossed Kouyou’s mind, with how little she had expected even having a romantic partner. Now that she’s said it, though, the notion feels as natural as anything. By now, Kyouka is more important to Kouyou than anything or anyone else in the world, and her life now is so dependent on Kouyou’s that her thoughts on such a development are as valuable as Kouyou’s. Kouyou might not have jumped to delete Yosano’s number and send subordinates to pick Kyouka up in her place for the rest of Kyouka’s years at the school had Kyouka indicated more negative feelings, but she would have taken it into strong consideration, at least.

Kyouka is still watching her. She’s toying with what’s left of her rice now, shuffling around individual grains but not picking any up. When Kouyou’s attention returns to her, she stiffens and glances down, dutifully taking in a few bites. She seems to deem this enough for now, and picks up her soup again, though she doesn’t yet sip from it.

“The butterfly was nice, then,” she says, not needing to clarify what butterfly she’s referring to.

Kouyou smiles. “Yosano-sensei thought so as well. As did I.”

Looking thoughtful, Kyouka gives another nod. Then, lips just brushing the rim of her bowl, she asks, “Do you like her?”

That freezes Kouyou in place. Kyouka is sipping her soup, but she keeps casting little glances up beneath her eyelashes, chagrined and embarrassed but not backing down.

“That is… difficult for me to admit,” manages Kouyou. If it had felt like pulling teeth to say this much to Yosano herself, then repeating it to her adopted daughter is comparable to ripping out her wisdom teeth with pliers. “But—yes, I do believe so. At the very least, I—would enjoy spending more time with her.”

Kyouka lowers her now-empty bowl and dabs at her mouth with a napkin. Though the light flush in her cheeks has deepened, her smile is bright and soft. “That’s good, too, then.”

The words are simple, but their warmth and intent go a long way. Kouyou sighs, stands, and rounds the table just so she can bend and wrap her arms around Kyouka. It’s an awkward angle and an awkward gesture, and both of them tense up on instinct, but Kouyou holds it for a moment nonetheless, the one-sided—Kyouka makes no efforts to reciprocate—embrace comforting and stiff in equal measures.

“You are my favorite child,” Kouyou says against the side of Kyouka’s head.

“I know,” says Kyouka, muffled by Kouyou’s sleeve. “Can I finish my rice now?”

Smiling, Kouyou removes her arms and nods, straightening back up. Kyouka returns to her breakfast as if nothing had happened, though her face is still tinted pink as she starts back in on her rice. With a soft laugh, bitten back to keep Kyouka from misinterpreting it, Kouyou crosses the room to scramble together something for Chuuya should he choose to rise sometime today.

A tentative warmth settles over her, persisting throughout the morning.

- in the original draft, it took WAY longer for it to be revealed that aya was kunikida's adoptive daughter, and i don't actually know why (could have something to do with the fact that i didn't decide on it until i was already 50k+ in, and i also barely had an outline even then lmao). also, his older son is katsura. - i can't remember if this was actually mentioned yet, so just to state it outright, mori also had no ability in this au. - that kewpie charm is a real thing! i wanted to give yosano some sort of phone charm, then found an article mentioning about how popular kewpie dolls are in japan, and as soon as i stumbled upon that i Knew. anyway, thank you so much for reading! see you next week! as always, if you have time to spare, thoughts are very appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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